Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Claude Chabrol | Merci pour le chocolat

by Douglas Messerli

Claude Chabrol, Charlotte Armstrong, and Caroline Eliacheff (screenplay, based on Armstron's book The Chocolate Cobweb), Claude Chabrol (director) Merci pour le chocolat / 2000

I have recently grown quite fond of the films of Claude Chabrol, and so I jumped at the possibility of watching Merci pour le chocolat in order to include it in My Year 2000, a year which I did get the opportunity to view it.

Several critics have noted that Chabrol is less interested in the motives of his often-twisted characters than he is in the playing out of their psychological disorders, almost as in sophisticated boulevard comedies, however without the farce. There is something of Oscar Wilde or even Noel Coward in Chabrol's works, without, strangely enough, their witty dialogue. But what Chabrol presents in its place is his witty and rich cinematography that captures us almost entirely, taking us into the dark corners of his character's rooms—and into their illogical thinking.
Merci pour le chocolat, after 50 some films, is the latest of this type. The beautiful home, in this case, belongs to Marie-Claire "Mika" Muller (Isabelle Huppert), heir to the great Swiss chocolatiers, and a strong-minded business woman to boot. We see her in her offices only once, at a board meeting, where she goes head to head with her older arch-enemy Dufreigne (Michel Robin), as she startlingly closes the meeting down before literally laughing at him the moment her office door is closed.

Mika has just been remarried to the sublime pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), to who she had been briefly married 18 year earlier. Polonski's second marriage to Lisbeth, ended one night on the curving road into town as she drove to get her husband some medicine, the potent Benzodiazepine, Rohypnol, to help him sleep. Despite the alcohol and drugs found in her system, no one quite seems to know (or care) how they got there. She drank only one cognac each night, and evidently took no drugs.

Polonski is played as a romantic dreamer, pounding away at the piano throughout each day almost the way a young child might play upon a game board; indeed his own disaffected son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), whose mother was Lisbeth, does precisely that, settling in at a young age as a couch potato.

It is clear that the remarried couple are not particularly in love, but that the marriage serves both of their purposes. As Polonski observes, Mika's father died "before I could disappoint him." Mika tells a friend that she is not at all in love with the pianist, and has waited for his son to become an adult before reentering the union.

For Polonski it is clear the Muller house offers him what he needs for his study of the piano, a large music room with two grand pianos, and the leisurely space in which to disappear. Miki's reasons are less apparent, but as the movie quickly progresses, we understand early on that she is in love with Polonski's son, Guillaume, and appears intent upon seducing or, perhaps, even raping him. I'll return to that later.

Into this drawing-room world comes a young, independently-minded pianist, Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis), as exuberant and spirited as Guillaume is broodingly dead. Jeanne has just discovered, by accident, through a dinner discussion with her mother—a forensics' doctor—and a friend, that upon her birth she and male child were temporarily mixed up, in the hospital, she being handed over as Polonski's child. The hospital, having run out of baby bracelets, had marked the children with the first letters of their last name, so that the POL of Polonski was confused with the POL of Pollet. In any event, the matter was quickly straightened up when Lisbeth awoke, asking to see her baby boy.

The very idea that a great pianist might possibly have been Jeanne's father, is utterly fascinating to the talented young pianist just beginning her career. And although the mother reassures her that she is her issue, Jeanne cannot escape the intrigue, going so far as to visit Polonski without an invitation.

She is unconditionally told to go away, but barges ahead into the great pianist's music room, blurting out her story. Before you can say Liszt, he is helping her to play "Funérailles," and introducing her into the wonders of new works.

Losing even more of his father's scant attention, Guilliaume slinks deeper into the couch, while Mika, with a great mocking show of motherly-like attention, breaks out her thermos of late-night chocolat (the reason that the American title was Nightcap). Mika even invites the young girl upstairs to see Lisbeth's photographs, which cannot help but engage the child, since she is a near-lookalike. One of Chabrol's most brilliant cinematic moments is when Jeanne, staring into the photo of a woman who could be her mother, catches the reflection of Mika, dropping the filled thermos to the floor.

"Why would a woman purposely drop a thermos of chocolate?" muses Jeanne the next day to her boyfriend, Axel, a young apprentice researcher at Jeanne's mother's hospital. "Why indeed?" Although the viewer has not necessarily perceived it as an intentional act, it is Chabrol's way of loading the dice, creating suspicion even when there is none.

The clever Jeanne, having caught some of the mixture on her sweater, even has the savvy to have Axel check out the chocolate mix in his lab. Sure enough, something's up, since it turns out to be none other the date rape drug, Rohypnol. That chocolate, we recall, was made particularly for Guilliaume! And the implications of that suddenly casts this sparkling comedy into a sinister psychological thriller.

Charmed by the beautiful pianist who looks so much like his former wife, how could Polonski not invite her back, and, finally, ask her to stay for a few days so that he can help her win her upcoming competition?

Jeanne is touched, but her choice to go is almost made for her when, at another mother and daughter meeting, Louise (Brigitte Catillon) reveals that Jeanne is her daughter through artificial insemination."We have been hiding things, haven't we?" responds the young girl.

Back at the Muller mansion, Jeanne reveals to Guilliaume what she knows. But his response, like almost all the adult responses in this film, is one of denial. Why would she intentionally spill the chocolate if she were determined to drug him? It is almost as if Chabrol has set up certain situations to see if he can out-smart himself, or perhaps stir the pot just enough so there can be no easy answers as to what lies within.

In fact, Merci pour le chocolate quickly flows in the direction of even further uncertainties, as Mika, brewing up another thermos of chocolate, is caught in the mirror by Guilliaume of spiking Jeanne's coffee. Oh dear, Polonski has run out of his Rohypnol again! Jeanne's offer to run in to town for the drug is absolutely baffling. But when Guilliaume demands to go with her, we see perhaps some sense in the act. "Why did you switch our coffee cups?" asks the suddenly clueless girl of Guilliaume.

No matter, without further ado, she also begins to feel the drug's effects and ends up crashing into a stone wall!

Meanwhile, Polonski, suddenly coming awake it appears, begins to question his wife. What was she doing with his Rohypnol, etc. etc., until it is impossible for the villain Mika to say anything but confess. Suddenly, the reason also for Lisbeth's death becomes quite obvious. The couple had spent the night at the Muller house, with Mika in attendance. A quick call to Jeanne's mother sends her and the police to the young couple's rescue. The two are unhurt, but everyone will soon be paying a visit to the Muller estate.

Tears drop from Mika's eyes before she curls up onto the fetal position. Any explanations will come, obviously, after the screen goes dead. But who could claim he didn't enjoy the trip.

Los Angeles, March 9, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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